Miami WTA Preview: Kerber and Pliskova head field, but Vesnina and Kuznetsova on a roll
We look ahead to the Miami WTA tournament, where Serena Williams and defending champion Victoria Azarenka are both missing
Things were clear cut from the start as the tour headed to Miami for the second half of one of the toughest months in the tennis calendar.
Just two weeks ago, in Indian Wells, the women’s draw was frantically rejigged after the last-minute withdrawal of the world No1 Serena Williams, but too late for No2 Angelique Kerber to see her name in the top spot among her 96 fellow competitors. In Miami, Kerber started in the right place: formally ranked No1 after overtaking Williams during the desert fortnight, and on the top line.
Kerber will, come what may, overtake quality players such as Tracy Austin, Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters on the list for most weeks at No1, but that is just one of the stories that herald the saturated colours and hot humidity of the jamboree that is the Miami Premier Mandatory.
No sooner have the women survived one tournament that is as demanding as a Grand Slam—all but the 32 seeds have to play seven matches in order to win the title—than they are straight into another. No wonder the double-header ‘sunshine double’ is such a rarity.
That said, the rewards for the fittest and the best are sky-high. Just as in Indian Wells, the winner will pick up $1,175,505 plus 1,000 ranking points, all the while enjoying one of the most popular locations in tennis: sun, sea, the Everglades, and miles of golden sand.
With Serena and defending champ Azarenka missing, who stands out?
Williams has won in Miami eight times and won 20 of her last 21 matches at Crandon Park. But also missing is the defending and three-time champion, Victoria Azarenka, who is on maternity leave. That she completed the ‘sunshine double’ last year makes her doubly missed: She is one of only three women ever to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back, after Steffi Graf and Clijsters.
Perhaps the resurgent elder Williams sister, Venus, could win her fourth Miami title 19 years after her first? She made a strong showing as far as the quarters in Indian Wells before falling to eventual champion Elena Vesnina, though the oldest woman in the draw continues to carry strapping to both leg and elbow.
There is no doubting her form—she is No4 in the Race to Singapore after her impressive run to the Australian Open final—but her heavy schedule may take its toll, especially as she has fallen into a tough segment with in-form Kristina Mladenovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Talking of the Russian, also shining for the over-30s, Kuznetsova came close to claiming the Indian Wells title in a three-hour marathon final, and is both a former champion in Miami, 10 years ago, and losing finalist last year. She began 2016 ranked 25 but this week is up to No7, and will be favoured to reach a fourth round against Williams or Mladenovic.
Vesnina spearheads some in-form 2017 titlists
There have been some big winners during the last month. Vesnina beat Kerber, Venus Williams, Mladenovic and Kuznetsova to win the biggest title of her career in Indian Wells. She will have to survive a similarly tough section if she is to do what only three have done before her: non-seeds Lucie Safarova and Kirsten Flipkens are led by No4 seed Dominika Cibulkova, with Caroline Wozniacki and Garbine Muguruza deeper into her quarter.
The 22-year-old Elina Svitolina made a big impression with her aggressive tennis on the way to picking up the Dubai trophy, her second victory this year and part of a 20-3 run. It marked, among other things, her entry into the top 10 and her third straight win over Kerber, but she lost a weary fourth-round three-setter to Muguruza in Indian Wells.
In contrast, Karolina Pliskova bounced back from a tired Dubai to make the semis in Indian Wells after two title runs—Doha and Brisbane, in a 19-3 season. However, the humid conditions are not perfect for her big-hitting game, and she has made two Round-1 exits in the last three years. As in Indian Wells, she is also drawn in the same quarter as Svitolina.
The 23-year-old Mladenovic makes her top-20 debut in Miami after starting the year at 45. The St Petersburg champion and Acapulco runner-up reached the semis in Indian Wells, too, beating quality opposition such as Wozniacki and Simona Halep. Again, though, Miami has not produced her best results: three wins in four appearances.
Are former champs Wozniacki and Radwanska ready to cash in?
However, others in the draw have proven records in the Keys. Radwanska joins Kuznetsova and Venus Williams as the only former champions in the draw, while Jelena Jankovic and Carla Suarez Navarro have been finalists.
Wozniacki has shown encouraging signs of a return to form after an injury absence last season. Her improvement began back at the US Open, where she made the semis before winning titles in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Then back-to-back finals in Doha and Dubai plus the quarters in Indian Wells brought up 18 wins this year and a rise to No14. With few points to defend until September, Wozniacki has plenty of motivation to maintain her upward trend, but a couple of trip wires, Monica Puig and Lauren Davis, could catch her early.
Radwanska has struggled to string wins together since making the final in Sydney, managing just three in four tournaments. But in Miami, she has reached the quarters three times, the semis in 2013, and she won in 2012. She is in a tough quarter with Svitolina and Pliskova, after a possible rematch with the woman who beat her in the second round in Australia, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, but needs some confidence-boosting results.
What about Halep and Muguruza?
Halep managed only one win in Indian Wells after an injury-marred month—she too has only three wins this season—but has made the quarters and semis in her last two years in Miami.
Muguruza will also hope to build confidence in this points-rich month. Although she seemed back to form at the start of this year, she followed a quarter-final finish in Australia with three losses from five matches played after picking up an injury. However, she has never made it past the fourth round in five visits to Miami.
Konta and Watson carry British hopes
Johanna Konta’s form earlier in the year was good: the semis in Shenzhen, title in Sydney and quarters in Australia. After an intense couple of months, she withdrew from Dubai with a foot injury but, after beating compatriot Heather Watson in her opener, she lost in the third round in Indian Wells.
The Briton reached the quarters in her Miami debut last year, losing to Azarenka. This year, she could meet Timea Babos, who she has beaten in both former meetings, in the third round. Further ahead are Madison Keys and Halep.
At least this week Konta cannot face the only other Briton in the draw, Heather Watson, in her first match. Watson continues to struggle to regain her form and slipped outside the top 100 this week—fortunately missing the qualifying cut-off for Miami by a week. But she needs to put together some wins to avoid that scenario in her forthcoming tournaments, as she will slip still further if she cannot match her fourth-round run last year. The draw has not helped. Mladenovic lurks in the second round, Williams in the third and Kuznetsova in the fourth.
Previous champions in draw: Kuznetsova, Radwanska, and Venus Williams
Youngest: Amanda Anisimova, age 15
Oldest: Venus Williams, age 36
Wild cards: Anisimova, Paula Badosa Gibert, Ashleigh Barty, Nicole Gibbs, Beatriz Haddad Maia, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Ajla Tomljanovic, Natalia Vikhlyantseva
Missing seeds: Injured Serena Williams and No16 Timea Bacsinszky, new mother Azarenka, No15 Petra Kvitova, recovering from hand injury sustained in an attack
Title winners so far in 2017: Lauren Davis, Konta, Pliskova x 2, Katerina Siniakova, Elise Mertens, Mladenovic, Svitolina x 2, Babos, Tsurenko, Barty, Vesnina
[NB all 32 seeds have bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]
No1 seed Kerber quarter
R2, Ying-Ying Duan
R3, first seed, No31 Daria Kasatkina
R4, Seeds are No16 Kiki Bertens or No20 seed Suarez Navarro
QF, No7 Kuznetsova, No25 Roberta Vinci, No22 Mladenovic, or No11 Williams
SF, No3 Halep and No8 Keys are top seeds
No3 seed Halep quarter
R2, Kristina Kucova or Naomi Osaka
R3, first seed, No32 Ekaterina Makarova
R4, Seeds are No14 Sam Stosur and No21 Caroline Garcia
QF, No10 Konta, No24 Babos, No28 Irina-Camelia Begu, No8 Keys
SF, No1 Kerber and No7 Kuznetsova are top seeds
No4 seed Cibulkova quarter
R2, Qualifier or Misaki Doi
R3, first seed, No29 Ana Konjuh
R4, Seeds are No13 Vesnina or No23 Daria Gavrilova
QF, No12 Wozniacki, No19 Anastasija Sevastova, No30 Shuai Zhang, No6 Muguruza
SF, No2 Pliskova and No5 Radwanska are top seeds
No2 seed Pliskova quarter
R2, Qualifier or Jelena Ostapenko
R3, first seed, No27 Yulia Putintseva
R4, Seeds are No18 Coco Vandeweghe and No15 Barbora Strycova
QF, No9 Svitolina, No17 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No26 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, No5 Radwanska
SF, No4 Cibulkova and No6 Muguruza are top seeds